How to Push Through the Wall of Grief, Pain, and Disappointment As You Run the COVID Marathon
At the beginning of the COVID experience, within the Aspen leadership team, we discussed the importance of pacing ourselves as leaders because we had a sense that the pandemic was going to be its own marathon. Perhaps this season has felt like that for you, too—a marathon with more miles than you ever anticipated.
Recently, I interviewed Michael Chitwood, Executive Director of Church and Ministry Partnerships at World Vision, and author of The Ability to Endure. Michael is no stranger to developing endurance. He has completed seven Ironman triathlons, seven ultra-marathons (56 miles), a 100-mile run, and many more marathons, but beyond this, his life has been full of grief and loss. Through it all, Michael invites people to consider how God can use the most painful experiences in our lives to draw us closer to Him through serving others.
As you reflect on this ministry season, how are you doing in the race you’re running? Are you struggling to endure? If not, you likely know someone who is overwhelmed. Michael shares his story with encouragement on how you can find hope and inspiration to continue the race.
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“I was the least likely of my friends to become a runner at all,” says Michael. “I was a defensive end at Olivet Nazarene University on the football team. I was about 265 pounds when I signed up for my first marathon. The idea of running 56 miles did not appeal to me. The first time I heard about it, we were four years into Team World Vision and a professional runner friend, Josh Cox, told me about the Comrades Marathon.”
Josh painted the picture for Michael. It was the oldest, largest ultramarathon in the world, spanning 56 miles through the hills of South Africa. Another friend, Andy Baldwin, said he would join the ultramarathon if Michael would. Initially, Michael said he had no interest, but then decided he would do it with one prerequisite—they had to get 1,000 kids sponsored through World Vision. With the help of other friends who joined, that goal was achieved. “Every one of us finished the race, and we got hooked,” Michael remembers with a smile.
As a marathon runner, I’ve experienced the challenges of the halfway point. It’s the place where you feel like you’ve hit a wall, where you begin to doubt if you can finish or even continue. And it’s not always where you would expect it.
According to Michael, the halfway point is typically around mile 20. “My wife and I use this all the time in life,” he says. “She has run six marathons, and I think she's done 40 half-marathons. Typically, the halfway point is at mile 20. I know that doesn't make any sense. People say, if a marathon is 26.2 miles, isn’t the halfway point 13.1? It's not. Energy-wise, challenge level-wise, it’s around mile 18 to 20. That is where you hit what they call ‘the wall.’ You hit the hardest part of the race, and then realize, I'm well past the distance halfway point. But I need to think in terms of: I've got another half left to go. Everything I just spent, I'm going to need to spend that and then some to get through these last 6.2 miles.”
There is a metaphor for life and ministry here. We don’t know when COVID will be over or if it will ever be over. We may only be halfway, even though we start to see some amazing signs in the journey. Pastors and church leaders, our hearts go out to you. We know there has been so much pressure, and we encourage you to continue pacing yourself in the moments when you’re feeling great and for those moments when you’ve hit the wall.
“But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
―C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
During our conversation, Michael shared the following statistics. While they are heartbreaking, we hope it can also give church leaders a sense that they are not alone, nor are they meant to be.
- 97% of pastors have felt betrayed.
- 70% of pastors battle depression.
- 500 pastors quit the ministry every month.
- Only 10% will retire as a pastor.
- 80% feel discouraged.
- 94% of their families feel the pressure of ministry.
- 78% of pastors have no close friends.
“Clergy are in worse health than the average American,” says Michael. “This is pretty tough to do because Americans aren't in very good health, and ministers joined doctors and attorneys among those with the highest rates of addiction and suicide. These are heartbreaking truths that speak to the challenges of being a pastor. Pastors often feel alone and find it difficult to find friends that can be truly authentic with.”
Michael adds, “You cannot finish this race alone, not in the long haul. You don't get 90% of pastors leaving the ministry for nothing. There's a cause. We need community. God designed us for community. I'm thrilled I have pastors who are friends and have community on their staff and in their church. But I have far more friends who are pastors, who really don't have peers. They don't have friends that they could be authentic and open with.
If this sounds familiar, he encourages pastors to take a couple of steps in response. “Reach out. I guarantee that if pastors called another pastor in their community, even someone they'd never talked to before, and said, ‘Hey, could we talk? I'm just discouraged. Wow. I'm just feeling beat up,’ I guarantee the other person is going to say, ‘Yes, I need it too.’ Those are the types of spaces we need to create for one another–spaces to be okay not being okay.”
He adds, “Make proactive calls. Just start calling the pastors in your community or your network. And say, ‘Hey, I haven't talked to you in years. I'm just calling to check in on you because who else is doing it?’”
If you’d like to read more inspirational and practical insights for persevering in difficult seasons of life, check out Michael Chitwood’s book, The Ability to Endure.